Bring the Legal Fair Online to Serve Distant Communities

Legal fairs are places people can go for free legal advice. A client fills out an intake form and is matched with a lawyer. The two sit down in a large room filled with tables where many other lawyers and clients are talking. Clients can get free, and sometimes very much needed, legal advice, and lawyers can network while serving their communities. Legal fairs support access to justice, but they tend to be held in urban areas where enough lawyers live to staff a fair. For people who live in rural areas, getting to the nearest urban area can be a challenge. Internet and telephone technologies can let us bring a legal fair anywhere, and providing remote access to a legal fair furthers access to justice for even more people.

How to do it

To start, it is likely that those who run the legal fair aren’t familiar with distant communities’ legal needs. Thankfully, there are legal and community service providers who serve those distant communities – find out who they are and ask if they might be interested in video-conference access to your legal fair. A community partner can make things much easier and more likely to succeed because of the local knowledge they can share and the local good will they have built.

In addition, check with the local courts. This can be key depending on your circumstances. Because courts in other areas can have very different procedures, your legal fair could have the unintended effect of creating expectations in the clients for court procedures that do not match the court procedures in the distant community. The judges and court employees that serve that community would know about the local procedures and might become advocates for bringing the legal fair to their community. Getting buy-in from local courts could be necessary for your legal fair to further access to justice.

Internet access is required for video-conferencing both at the legal fair and the remote site. It’s best to select a location for your legal fair that provides Internet access and partner with a community organization in the distant community to host that also has Internet access. A good place to start is the local library. Libraries tend to have good Internet access, are still fairly ubiquitous in the United States, and are strong community centers that can promote events that serve their communities. If Internet access is still a problem, then you can look into using a mobile hotspot (available through most major mobile phone service providers for a monthly fee). Mobile hotspots can create a wireless Internet connection just about anywhere. Test the reception of your hotspot where you plan to use it before the day of the fair. (See Murphy’s Law.)

Example: Legal Fair in New Mexico

For a legal fair in New Mexico, the Access to Justice Commission looked to New Mexico Legal Aid. New Mexico Legal Aid provides legal services throughout the state. Attorneys in Legal Aid have experience managing legal fairs, and they have developed relationships with community service providers in rural areas. The Access to Justice Commission had already built strong relationships with New Mexico Legal Aid, and Legal Aid attorneys were excited to help further access to justice in their service areas.

The Supreme Court Law Library in New Mexico provided Skype-enabled computers, headsets, a mobile hotspot, and staff to run it all.  A New Mexico Legal Aid attorney was liaison to the remote site and handled all remote intake. The Access to Justice Commission brought a legal fair taking place in Albuquerque, the closest big city, to serve clients in Mora, a stunningly beautiful community in a distant green valley, with the sponsorship of Mora’s community college library and local judges. This was just half of it, because the commission also partnered with a public library in the town of Moriarty, just outside of Albuquerque, to bring the same legal fair to a third location.

Your Turn

Promoting access to justice requires teamwork, and this goal is worth exploring. If two Skype-enabled computers, two headsets, and a mobile hotspot are within your budget, then you can provide online access to a legal fair.  If not, then perhaps you can work with others to provide these resources for the fair – you could even try borrowing the resources.  Even if things don’t come together for your next legal fair, you still have the opportunity to start conversations and build relationships between the organizers of legal fairs and more distant courts and community service providers to explore ways to provide the resources you need to allow for some sort of video (or even telephone) conferencing during a legal fair to further access to justice in your state.

Hat tip to Callie Dendrinos (Staff Attorney at New Mexico Legal Aid) and Wanda Martinez (Site Director, Luna Community College – David Cargo Library).

Featured image: “Pressing law key on keyboard” from Shutterstock.

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